Honor Slaves For Surviving the Confederacy

Aaron Perry

I am not surprised that public officials in Union County, North Carolina have finally authorized the inclusion of a marker/monument on courthouse grounds to honor its local slave population.  [I’ve followed this story for quite some time.]  Given everything I know about the folks involved in this project I am not optimistic that the final wording of the marker will do justice to what we know about the history of free and enslaved blacks and the Confederacy.  The history will be distorted.

This is unfortunate since slaves like Aaron Perry and Weary Clyburn deserve to be remembered.  The final wording of the marker will likely reference their service in the Confederate army and their having been awarded pensions late in life.  This interpretation will satisfy the self-serving agenda of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are committed to remembering the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights.   It will also satisfy the descendants of these men, who wish to see their ancestors remembered.

These men deserve to be remembered, but not for living a life that falls outside of the historical record.  They deserve to be remembered because they survived slavery.  We can only imagine what hardships and humiliations these men suffered as chattel.  How many experienced the lash or the pain of separation from loved ones?  How many suffered from the intense desire to be free?

On top of all of this these men were forced to endure the hardships of a war that, if concluded in favor of their owners, would have ensured their continued enslavement.  Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the Confederate government as laborers, while thousands more accompanied their owners to serve their individual needs.  The presence of slaves in the army did not mark a change in their legal status.  They were not brought to war to place them any closer to freedom.  Quite the opposite.  Now, in addition to the hardships experienced at home these men were forced to negotiate a new set of challenges and dangers.  Violence was anything but foreign to the nation’s slave population by 1861.  Separation from families was anything but new for these men.

And yet these men survived.  They even went on and managed to eke out an existence during very difficult times that perhaps filled them with pride in knowing that their lives were finally their own.

Yes, we should honor these men.  Honor them not for serving the Confederacy, but surviving it.

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13 comments… add one
  • Chad Soileau Jun 14, 2012 @ 13:48

    Ah, always finding a way to put a damper on things, eh Kevin? You honor them how you see fit, allow others to do the same.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2012 @ 13:49

      If putting a damper on things means pointing out when the act of commemoration contradicts or butchers history than I am guilty as charged.

      • Chad Soileau Jun 14, 2012 @ 14:34

        Um, the act of honoring them for their service, whether voluntary or coerced distorts or butchers history? Wow.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2012 @ 14:38

          Service to what? Slaves served their masters as they had done before the war. The war may have changed the landscape on which they operated, but their legal status did not. To way “whether voluntary or coerced” suggests that you do not understand the nature of the relationship.

    • James Harrigan Jun 14, 2012 @ 15:11

      Chad, there is nothing honorable about falsifying the historical record.

  • Jim Dick Jun 9, 2012 @ 12:48

    This is just more garbage that serves to perpetuate the Lost Cause lie that whitewashes the Civil War. The SCV will do practically anything to keep shifting the actual reason for the war occurring, that of slavery, to other sources. By changing the reality of what happened with slaves being forced to serve the Confederates during the war to actually serving in the Army and willingly supporting the rebels these groups actually purposely distort history. Fact based history, primary sources, the documents, and the witnesses of the period reveal what happened. The Black Confederate myth is just a continuation of the Lost Cause lie. I’m really not surprised that adherents of this lie are willing to use public funds and facilities to give legitimacy to their efforts.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jun 10, 2012 @ 6:11

      I agree Jim. The brutal fact is that slaves were impressed to serve the Confederacy. Assessments, which were often bitterly resisted, were made upon slave owners. It’s fascinating that only those slaves whose lives can be misrepresented to fit the moonshine and magnolias myth are so “honored”. Most of those who “served” the Confederacy did for the military what they previously did for civilians: do the necessary, brutal work that was essential for a white society that gave them nothing in return for their labors but could not survive without them. A portion of an April 1864 petition from white citizens of Talladega, GA to the Governor protesting additional impressments of slaves (the OR reference is in the text) is particularly telling in how the service of the slaves was regarded by the whites:

      >>Fifth. In view of this condition of things the undersigned beg leave to state that they will be unable to raise a sufficient crop this season to meet the just claims, the absolute necessities of these families, unless they are permitted to employ their slave labor for that purpose. In this connection they would further respectfully call the attention of Your Excellency to the following facts, viz: On the 22d of December, 1862, there were impressed 90 negroes in this county. On the 29th of January, 1863, 120 negroes were impressed. On the 7th of March, 1863, 150 more and 5 wagons and teams. In the fall of 1863, 150 to 160 more. In February, 1864, 160 more, who are now at Mobile. In August, 1863, about— wagons and teams were impressed and sent to Montevallo to haul coal and iron. In August, 1863, under an order, it was said, from General Wheeler, about 175 horses were impressed. Within a few days past Captain Graham, under an order from Lieutenant-General Polk, it is said, has been here and impressed about horses and about mules, claiming and exercising the right to take every seventh mule, whether the same was actually necessary “to carry on the agricultural employments of the owner” or not. Moreover, a large proportion of the work oxen in this county have been obtained for the use of the Government by persons who informed the owners they were empowered by it to buy, and if they would not sell at such prices as they offered to give them they would impress them.<<

  • Myra Chandler Sampson Jun 8, 2012 @ 19:21

    I absolutely agree Kevin, It is amazing that they survived the horrows of slavery.

  • Leonard Lanier Jun 8, 2012 @ 13:20

    Meanwhile, “body soldiers” get recognition in South Carolina.


    I especially love “the 3,000 to 10,000 black Confederates who Harvard researchers suspect fought for the South.” A reference to John Stauffer, I assume?

  • James Harrigan Jun 8, 2012 @ 11:13

    Nicely stated, Kevin.

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